The Titans’ improbable run to the AFC championship game is all the more remarkable given how they’ve made it there. Tennessee has taken an old-school track in these playoffs, eschewing modern pass-happy trends in favor of a heavy ground-and-pound offensive attack. During the second half of the season and the playoffs’ first two rounds, the Titans have increasingly leaned on Derrick Henry, the team’s absurdly powerful running back–slash–battering ram who’s carried the offense on his back in wins over the Patriots and Ravens. Henry has rushed for 377 yards on 64 carries in those two postseason wins―tallying 182 and 195 yards, respectively, the first player ever to notch two games of 175-plus rushing yards in the same postseason―and has more than doubled quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s passing yardage (160) in that stretch.
Henry’s impact on the Titans offense goes further than just raw yardage, though. The fourth-year back is central to just about everything the team does on offense, from the ground game to its play-action passing attack and everything in between. Tennessee’s unique offensive identity is centered upon the team’s larger-than-life running back, and with King Henry leading the charge, the Titans look ready to go on the road and face the heavily favored Chiefs on Sunday.
The Titans are, as a team, outliers: They’re just the sixth 6-seed to advance to the conference championship round since 1990, when the NFL expanded its postseason format. It’s fitting, then, that they’re led by Henry, who is, in many ways, the outlier of all outliers: For starters, he’s extraordinarily massive compared to most running backs, possessing a body type that might be found more frequently among edge rushers or linebackers. Henry’s had success, though, because he possesses rare speed, acceleration, and agility―not just for a human being of his size, but for, well, anyone.
But beyond his otherworldly physical attributes, Henry’s bucking the modern convention that an offense will go only as far as its quarterback takes it. The NFL’s rushing champion has become a living football cliché: the unstoppable force; the engine that powers the Titans offense; or the bruising back who gets stronger as the game wears on and the weather gets colder. That last one is actually true, by the way: His record-setting rushing numbers this postseason are a testament to the idea that defenders simply get tired of tackling him in bitterly cold January games. But Henry’s regular-season first-half/second-half splits tell an interesting story, too. From Week 7 (when Tannehill took over as starter) through Week 17, Henry was a good-not-great first-half runner, compiling 371 yards, one touchdown, and 17 first downs on 83 rushes while averaging 4.5 yards per tote. In the second halves (and overtimes) in those games, though, Henry totaled 107 rushes for 753 yards (easily tops in the league, with the next-best finisher at 449 yards), notching league bests in touchdowns (11) and first downs (32). He averaged 7.04 yards per carry.
Most of those smashmouth football ideals were born during a bygone era, when teams were frequently built around the ground game. What makes Henry unique is that he’s doing this in the modern NFL, when rules favor quarterbacks and the majority of the league’s best teams are built around passing and stopping the pass. That may be part of the reason the Titans’ against-the-grain strategy is working: Defensive players―particularly linebackers and safeties―have gradually shrunk over the years, a necessity for coordinators looking to match up with the nascent spread-offense attacks. But the Titans and their berserker of a running back have gone the opposite way, frequently bunching up into heavy formations while inviting as many defenders into the box as they can.
Henry saw an eight-man box on 35.3 percent of his rush attempts during the regular season, per NFL Next Gen Stats, second only to Frank Gore (37.4 percent) among running backs with 150 carries. Those loaded boxes didn’t stop him; Henry averaged 5.1 yards per attempt on 303 carries on the season, gaining an NFL-best 1,540 yards and a league-high 16 touchdowns on the ground. It may not be surprising to hear, then, that he also led the NFL in yards after contact (973) and finished third in broken tackles (29).
Logic dictates that teams that want to run more efficiently should spread the field and force teams to counter with fewer defenders in the box. The Cardinals did that this year better than just about any other team, running three- or four-receiver sets 82 percent of the time while finishing with the second-ranked rushing offense per Football Outsiders DVOA. But with the way Henry runs, Tennessee has embraced the opposite approach: With teams crowding the line of scrimmage, the team can pick up yards on the ground and also give itself more opportunities to attack wide-open green spaces downfield through play-action and a variety of constraint plays that keep defenses on their heels (the Titans finished with the fifth-ranked rushing offense).
More than a quarter of Henry’s runs (26 percent) against the Patriots went into stacked boxes, as were a whopping 63 percent of his rushes against the Ravens. Looking at how the plays were drawn up, though, it’s clear that was by design. The Titans frequently lined up with two backs, two (or sometimes three) tight ends, and looked to compress their formations into the middle of the field. You can see that from this smattering of plays from the New England game:
Henry manages well despite the lack of a blocking advantage, but one advantage of running compressed, heavy formations that draw defenders both to the middle of the field and closer to the line of scrimmage is that if Henry can get through that first wall of defenders, he can more easily break away. We saw that against the Texans in the team’s crucial Week 17 win, and again against the Ravens on Sunday.
Those heavy, compressed formations can also help open up the team’s play-action passing attack, luring defenders out of position to allow Tannehill to attack coverage holes.
Tannehill was prolific in that area in the regular season, throwing for 1,165 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions and a 13.5 yard-per-attempt average (also a league high) on play-action passes. In the postseason, the Titans haven’t asked Tannehill to air it out a whole lot (Tennessee is the first team since 1988 to have multiple playoff wins without 100 yards passing in either), but he’s been efficient when given the chance. We saw that on Sunday when he connected with Khalif Raymond on this 45-yard score in the second quarter.
The Titans have also added in a handful of complementary plays to their mostly run-heavy, play-action-based scheme. Whether it’s a screen pass or an end around, these constraint plays keep defenders from cheating too much toward Tennessee’s foundational plays.
Henry’s impact—both as a pure runner and as the team’s schematic focal point—was perfectly summed up by a pair of third-quarter plays in Tennessee’s win over the Ravens. Holding a tenuous 14-6 lead midway through the third quarter, the Titans faced a third-and-1 from their own 28-yard line. The Ravens defense countered with nine defenders in the box, apparently hell-bent on stuffing the incoming Henry run. That’s when Henry did this:
Three plays later, Henry and the Titans used the Ravens’ aggressiveness against them again. Facing a third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Tannehill came off the field and backup quarterback Marcus Mariota went on, aligning at first in the pistol formation. But then Mariota motioned to the outside, and Henry took the snap from a wildcat look. Pretty much everything the Titans did screamed run, and the Ravens reacted accordingly. Both linebacker Josh Bynes and safety Chuck Clark bit on the run fake, which allowed Henry to jump up and lob a pass to Corey Davis for a score.
There’s no doubt that Tannehill’s hyper-efficient play over the second half of the season was a big part of the Titans’ shocking turnaround. But the team’s postseason performance has been a reminder that Henry is the true foundation for what Tennessee wants to do on offense. The big, physical back has been the uniquely irreplaceable focal point of the team’s scheme, leading Tennessee past the best defense in the NFL in New England, and, arguably, the best overall team in the league in Baltimore. Now, the Titans will have to square off against one of the hottest teams, a Chiefs squad that just outscored the Texans 51-10 over the final three quarters of their divisional-round tilt.
That’s why, even though what we’ve seen from Henry over the past two weeks has been unprecedented, Tennessee may need him to dig even deeper to keep this incredible run of dominance going. Whether it’s from a run play, a play-action pass, a jump pass from the King himself―or all three―the Titans will go as far as Henry can carry them.